Something completely different: this post has nothing to do with opera. It's a text I wrote in the run-up to the exhibition I.U. [Heart] at The Third Line gallery in Dubai, opening on June 23, 2010.
Iranian contemporary art: a view from Europe…
It’s convenient for us to pigeonhole countries we don’t know with a handful of stereotypical attributes. Relatively few people in the West, whether interested in art or not, have a mental picture of Iran that goes beyond the caricature conveyed by the media: a repressive, murderous Islamic republic, enemy of the West and bona fide member of America’s “Axis of Evil,” ruled by elderly, bearded imams and a vociferous, unpredictable president, possibly mad and capable, it seems, of making the wildest claims regardless of the intelligence of his audience.
The first reaction to Iranian contemporary art is often just surprise that it exists at all: there were no white-walled contemporary art galleries in that mental picture we had of Tehran.
The second, as we have seen with the burgeoning of exhibitions of modern Iranian art over the past two or three years (1) and the publication of a number of books on the subject (2), is surprise at its “vibrancy,” variety and awareness of what’s going on (in art or in everything) outside Iran.
These discoveries may (supposing the gallery visitor has not seen Marjane Satrapi's cartoon film Persepolis) provide the first hint that Iran is actually something very different from the meagre contents of our virtual pigeonhole: a more complex place by far than we innocently thought.
Art with a global outlook
I put “vibrancy” in inverted commas because the word seems to pop up often in reviews of Iranian art but go undefined. I think, again, it shows surprise at the humour, often ironic or grating, found in much of the work, along with a sense of lively imagination and bubbling creative ferment, and a degree of what we suppose can only be seen by the regime, supposing it pays any attention, as provocation. The variety – the absolute un-alikeness – of the work is also unexpected. Perhaps what we do expect is some kind of official Islamic art or state propaganda, but it is not, far from it, what we get. Alternatively, we might expect social or political messages and comment on the fate of women in Iranian society. Those we get, but far from exclusively.
What we find least of all in what we see is specifically “oriental” imagery. When we do see it, it is used consciously, deliberately and, on the whole sparingly, not decoratively or anecdotally. Iranian art today is, to put it from a western-centric perspective, almost entirely westernised or, to put it more correctly, global in outlook. The fact is (as Mamali Shafahi points out in his own curator’s introduction to I.U. [Heart]) that, like artists anywhere in the world, Iranian artists want above all to be free to express what interests them most, whatever it may be; and some of them may find the expectation that, being Iranian, they will take religious or specifically Persian themes as their subjects, irksome – and reject it.
So, whether art imitates life or vice versa, what we experience thanks to our young Iranian artists is the emergence of a more accurate picture, through the pictures on show, of urban Iran today.
Galleries do exist in Tehran and other Iranian cities; indeed there’s a busy art scene, part (along with cafés and restaurants, wild weekend parties, plunging necklines, make-up and mini skirts, poolside holidays, visits to relatives in Los Angeles, etc.) of the “parallel,” non-Islamic life led by at least the broad urban middle classes. Life has got harder since the contested election of June 2009, and even before, every planned exhibition needed official authorisation, but the shows – if authorised - go on.
Though the role of religion in public life is among the themes, none of the work I have come across in my acquaintance with contemporary Iranian art would be called “religious art” as such, and much of what I have seen in the West could presumably not be shown publicly in Iran. In some cases this is for the simple and obvious reason that it contains nudity: young Iranians “let loose” are understandably keen to explore their identity and sexuality, or just enjoy breaking taboos. In some cases we may, through our outsiders’ eyes at least, see sarcasm or criticism directed at the regime, or comments on Iran’s relations with the U.S. and the rest of the world. In addition, quite often we see the clear influence of American pop (or post-pop) art of what might (affectionately) be called the “trashiest” kind.
A common thread: ambiguity
Just as the Iranian authorities must know what actually goes on behind closed doors at weekends, so they must know what is exhibited at home and abroad. In both cases, in what looks like a sort of cat-and-mouse game (3), sometimes they react, mostly they don’t, raising an intriguing question as to whether or not, for example, a portrait of Mr Ahmadinejad in a Soviet-style “socialist-heroic” pose would be taken as sarcasm by us foreign devils but at face value by the state. (Or even just seemingly at face value?) There’s an ambiguity between political discourse and pragmatism, between the party line and an uneasy, fitful day-to-day tolerance that permeates the whole “Iran phenomenon.” This ambiguity is a permanent feature of life in Iran, of Iranians’ relationship with their homeland and of Iran’s relations with the world, and provides, I believe from my own observation, the one thread that unites the work of Iranian artists today (4) and that they play on constantly in their art.
Political, religious or sexual ambiguity. Ambiguity as to concept, message or intent: face value or double or triple meaning? Serious or playfully ironic or bitterly sarcastic? Ambiguity as to national allegiance or individual identity or attitudes to the “West” (the U.S. especially but also the “West” in its widest sense, including, e.g., Japan) and its art. Ambiguity which makes Iranian contemporary art sometimes puzzling or at least intriguingly enigmatic but, to me at any rate (and fortunately for the artists, who have to eat, to others) fascinating.
Ambiguity which in fact, as a wide-ranging reflection on love-hate ambivalence in relations between Iran and the US, gave this exhibition its name: I. U. [Heart]: “I” as in Iran, “U” as in U.S., “I love you.”
(1) “Lion Under The Rainbow” at Art Athina in 2008, “Iran Inside Out” at the Chelsea Museum in New York or “Raad O Bargh” at the Galerie Thaddeus Ropac in Paris, both in 2009, are just three examples.
(2) Such as “Different Sames: New Perspectives in Contemporary Iranian Art,” TransGlobe Publishing Ltd, 2009.
(3) In the early stages of preparing for I. U. [Heart], curator Mamali Shafahi compared Iran and the US to Tom and Jerry: apparently always fighting but apparently inseparable.
(4) Those under thirty have grown up under the post-revolutionary Islamic regime and seem to know how to deal with it.